Programming has a vocabulary and it’s worth rehearsing

There are programmers who proudly proclaim ignorance of computer science fact knowledge because they can just search for definitions or code on the Internet. “Bubblesort? Why remember? You can Google that!” These people limit their own employability and career options. Facts fluency is required after a certain point.

One of the most interesting things I received in college was a cheat sheet of the minimal mathematical definitions of NP-complete problems. It was a double-sided single sheet of paper with maybe a total of 25 problem definitions. We used that to prepare for the final exam of one of the algorithm complexity classes. That was about ten years ago and I still remember plenty.

This was also the first time I realized that terms like “bin packing” or “maximum cut” in the language of computer science serve a similar function as terms like “dog” or “cat” in the English language. When you first acquire the language, you learn and rehearse these terms independently. After you mastered the basic terms you can combine them to create meaningful sentences.

The vocabulary of computer science is like any other vocabulary. You have to learn it and if you don’t use it, you lose it. After mastery of terms and sentences, you can reach the next skill level: to see a problem and immediately recognize its core, ignoring the frills that make it different from textbook examples. That’s a skill that can not be Googled because you don’t even know what terms to Google for.

I encourage every programmer to regularly brush up on the basics. You can do the minimum by reading Wikipedia. If you want to be an overachiever you can go to a page like the Dictionary of Algorithms and Data Structures and create a set of flashcards with terms to rehearse.

Programming has a vocabulary and it’s worth rehearsing

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